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difficult difficult lemon difficult by Alan Z. '23

the end of senior fall

When I started senior fall, I was taking a course load of 6 classes.01 I am writing this down in class-equivalents; MIT has a horrifically cursed system of <a href="https://registrar.mit.edu/registration-academics/academic-requirements/subject-levels-credit">units</a>, where 12 units is considered the equivalent of a "normal" class. perhaps that deserves another blog post later. Despite the fact that it remained higher than the course load that the average student takes while at MIT, it was a number I felt comfortable with, having done similar things since freshman spring, ranging from a slightly more typical 5.5 to the exceptional 7.5 of sophomore fall. So, once again, I bravely forged ahead, conscious of increased workload in other areas of my life—the SuperUROP corresponding to 6.UAR, a year-long class structured around a fixed research project; my newly-minted role as DormCon Vice President, a job involving lots of organizing and working with different folks to help make residential life at MIT better; my ongoing and increasing responsibilities as Next House President, given the sudden loss of our Area Director.02 a <a href="https://studentlife.mit.edu/life-campus/undergraduate-residential-life/whos-house">professional staff member</a> who lives in the dorm and helps out with student support and, often, a lot of organizational tasks. It would be fine, right? I had done the math on the time commitment, albeit somewhat less rigorously than usual, and I figured that everything would work itself out.

This was not to be the case. I ended up dropping two classes. Both had content-related justifications: the first, a class on the fundamentals of computer security, was just not quite as exciting as my other two classes on computer systems; and the second, a class on musicals, did not have a quality of instruction which made me feel I was going to gain anything from the class. The root cause, however, was that I was working at a level I had scarcely seen while at MIT,03 the worst week—the second week of classes—I did 62 hours of work, just under the <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/sunset-sunrise/">two record weeks</a> of fall 2020. and I needed something to backstop me before the semester ramped up.

Despite opening the relief valve, I still felt like I was flailing. Some part of me felt like a past version of me should’ve been able to keep up with both of those classes and my other commitments. The workload was high, but it wasn’t something I’d never seen before; surely, an added dollop of efficiency and just a little more grit could’ve gotten me there. More worryingly, I kept making unforced errors. I’d have an email on my radar as something to send, and then forget about it for two weeks until suddenly it was either extremely urgent or already too late. I punted the task of finding a thesis advisor, a task necessary for my graduation, until after Drop Date; my advisor and I would end up having to work out a plan for me to do the requisite work during IAP. Despite having been given three weeks to produce the final paper for my biography class—a twenty-page sketch about the life of former Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben S. Bernanke—I ended up beginning to write in earnest just three days before the paper was due, resulting in a record-setting twenty-seven consecutive hours of consciousness in my scramble to actually finish it.

By the end of the semester, I was taking 49 units, the approximate equivalent of four classes. It was fewer units than I’d taken at any point during my MIT career, including freshman fall, where I had taken 56.04 MIT policy on this has changed over time, specifically since I was a first-year. in general, first-year students have a credit limit placed upon them, in order to prevent them from jumping the proverbial shark. in my year, it was 48 units, with an additional 9 units allowed for 'discovery' credit, which I used liberally. I ended up doing well in all of my classes, but I felt somewhat that my hand had also slipped in many of my other commitments, especially as president of Next and music director of the Asymptones. What had changed? Why was I making the same mistakes as before, plus new ones which I hadn’t made since high school or earlier?

Fortunately, none of my remaining classes had finals, and so, after my ill-paced dive into the world of monetary policy—plus a wrapping up a group final project in one class and a “quiz” worth 25% of our grade in another—my break started on December 14th, a week and a day before finals season would wrap up for many of my friends. I took the chance to start reading again, and to reflect on the semester which had troubled me.

Upon reflection, I realized that—in spite of the number of classes—this semester was, frankly, as difficult as the other ones. There were weeks where I was working twenty hours on top of classes and extracurriculars, between my SuperUROP and shifts at desk. The two computer science classes I ended up in—one on database systems, and the other on computer system architecture—were graduate-level courses, which necessarily made them more time-intensive than undergraduate ones. In combination with my earlier assessments of increasing extracurricular workloads, the response seems perfectly reasonable. Of course, things were difficult; they were always going to be that way.

This does not mean, of course, that things could not have been better. I have always been guilty of biting off more than I can chew—sometimes, to the unfair detriment of others—and a maybe a hint of senioritis, that eternal disease of students with (metaphorically) graying hair, has hindered my ability to manage time and tasks and emails as well as I used to. Yet, it is hardly the worst thing that could have happened. All in all, technically speaking, senior fall was not that bad. It might even have been good.

It was simultaneously relieving and frustrating to have this realization: relieving, because I was glad to realize that I hadn’t completely lost my touch, and frustrating, because I feel like I if I had realized it earlier, I might have felt happier and performed better. I think it is often too easy for certain kinds of people—especially at this school—to forget that they are doing really difficult things, to buy into this myth that they should always be doing more. In the midst of all these people, taking more classes, doing more things, it is so hard to remember that “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” Lots of people choose MIT exactly because it is the hard thing, it is the marathon, but we forget that the standard was our choice to begin with, and that failing to achieve it is exactly is not indicative of our failure as a person.

But even now, seven semesters in, I forget.

Over break, I’ve been reading a lot, between books that I started reading during my biography class, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and some poetry collections, as recommended to me by my thesis advisor. A few days ago, however, I ended up stumbling through a romance novel that Goodreads kept recommending to me, and, in spite—or perhaps, because—of its nature, one question near the end hit me. One character comes to a reckoning that they have become someone they did not expect to become, and the other asks: “but do you like them?”

And, for a moment, I thought about it. What have I grown into, and do I like them?

And, I kind of do. I think the thing about changing is that we keep forgetting that it happened; that sometimes, we keep asking the question “how do I get better?” and feel like we haven’t made any progress along the way. It is the hedonic treadmill of self-actualization, where suddenly the “I feel completely fine” of the summer is no longer enough, and I keep pushing myself to become more perfect. But, now and again, I stop and look back at it and I think, “yeah, I’ve changed, but, yeah, I kind of like it.”

My roommate this semester told me that “you seem relatively good at saying no [to things].” He’s wrong, but isn’t that progress? Another friend of mine, when discussing class choices for next semester, told me that “you’re lucky know exactly what you’re interested in,” which reminded me of my total uncertainty just over a year ago, talking with two Boston Conservatory students who wanted to make music for the rest of their lives. That uncertainty is mostly gone now, even though the end of college is so close by. I’ve changed so much, and I didn’t even notice, because I just kept moving forward.

Yes, my senior fall is over, and I am painfully aware that I am now just one semester away from graduating. But, this place has made me a much better person—more confident, more independent, more willing to stand up for myself—and I need to stop forgetting that. I am doing the things I want to do. I took two graduate classes in computer systems; I wrote fifty pages of creative non-fiction; I helped organize a Thanksgiving dinner that fed over a hundred people without a hitch. When the semester ended, I filled a one-inch binder with everything I’d written this year, and left it on the table for my wing-mates to read.

I am still biting off more things than I can chew; it’s a hard habit to kick, and if four years here hasn’t done it, I’m not sure what will. But, I’m getting better at being a person, in all the little corners of myself, and, sometimes—perhaps more often than I’m letting myself do now—I just need to take a break, slow down a bit, and look back and remember that progress.

  1. I am writing this down in class-equivalents; MIT has a horrifically cursed system of units, where 12 units is considered the equivalent of a "normal" class. perhaps that deserves another blog post later. back to text
  2. a professional staff member who lives in the dorm and helps out with student support and, often, a lot of organizational tasks. back to text
  3. the worst week—the second week of classes—I did 62 hours of work, just under the two record weeks of fall 2020. back to text
  4. MIT policy on this has changed over time, specifically since I was a first-year. in general, first-year students have a credit limit placed upon them, in order to prevent them from jumping the proverbial shark. in my year, it was 48 units, with an additional 9 units allowed for 'discovery' credit, which I used liberally. back to text